Enjoying the Wine Life

Greg Brewer Heads for the Hills

At a recent wine tasting in Miami Beach, I had the chance to chat with winemaker Greg Brewer. His Brewer-Clifton winery is recognized as one of the finest producers of pinot noir and chardonnay in the Santa Barbara district. Specifically, he farms over 80 acres in the Sta. Rita appellation, and his wines consistently earn 90+ points from critics. His 2012 pinot noir was #8 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list of 2014.

He and his original partner Steve Clifton put together $10,000 to establish their winery in 1996 and he currently farms the four distinctive vineyards he owns. Today, partnering with Master Sommelier Ken Fredrickson, the winery produces four single vineyard chardonnays and six pinot noirs in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation outside Santa Barbara. The annual production is around 10,000 cases.

Originally a French instructor at the University of Santa Barbara, Brewer began working in the Sta. Rita area in the 1990s as an assistant in a winery, and “became seduced by the incredible winegrowing area.” He made it his goal to produce his own wines in the district. “What really attracted me,” he remembers, “was the fact that every wine I produce will be different. There’s a certain humility in never being able to reproduce one’s work.”

Even though pinot noir is known as the “heartbreak grape” because it’s so difficult to grow, Brewer dived in. “The challenge is the most interesting part of the process,” he maintains.  He ferments whole clusters, with no destemming because the stems moderate the sweetness of the pinot noir. And interestingly enough, the oak barrels he uses are up to 15 years old. He is striving for “the pure flavors of the wine.” According to Brewer, the wines should be in a “neutral state,” with no additives and as little interference from the winemaker as possible.

“I’m after the pure flavors of the wine,” he says. “I want to remove the winemaker’s signature. At our winery it’s not about what we do to the wine…it’s about what we don’t do.” Like every other winemaker I’ve met, Brewer insists on respecting and focusing on the place where the grapes come from. “We handle the fruit from each vineyard identically from harvest to bottling. This allows the true essence of the site to best be expressed.”

As I was writing this article, I received word that Brewer had sold his winery to Jackson Family Wines, a worldwide company that owns literally dozens of wineries across the globe.

“I’ve always been dedicated to my work,” says Brewer of the acquisition, “and I’ll still be at the helm of Brewer-Clifton as full-time winemaker and brand ambassador.”

With Brewer remaining in charge, there’s no doubt that his wines will maintain their reputation for quality and purity they’ve enjoyed over the past 20 years. If you see them on the shelf, buy them.

Let’s move on to some new discoveries…

Chasing Venus Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2016 ($16) – A quintessential New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a characteristic nose of grapefruit, pineapple, and citrus. Light peach flavors on the palate. Great with seafood.  WS 89-90

BR Cohn Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard ($24) – If you like ’em buttery and oaky, this is the wine for you. Deep yellow in the glass, with aromas of butter for days.  Think melon, crème brulee, and caramel. Nicely balanced for all that.  WW 86

Viansa Chardonnay Carneros 2013 ($45) – The other end of the “butter and oak” spectrum, the Viansa is light, pale yellow in the glass, with a lean and minerally flavor profile. Tart apple, pear, and white peach.  WW 86

The Marvelous Mondavis

When Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa Mondavi moved to Napa Valley in the early 1900s, it’s pretty certain they had no idea their name would become associated with the pioneers of the American wine industry in the 20th Century. And beyond.

A greengrocer by trade, Cesare started buying and selling grapes. Then, in the early 1940s, he started making wine out of them.  Soon after, Cesare and Rosa bought the Charles Krug winery from another immigrant family (this one from Germany), and their sons Peter and Robert learned the trade…very well, it turns out.

The brothers parted company in later years, and Robert’s flair for winemaking and promotion made his name the more familiar of the two. However, Peter and his sons quietly grew their company into one of the most successful wine brands in America.

Today, Peter’s son Marc runs the Charles Krug winery, along with several other labels he’s established. “I’ve always been involved in wine production,” he recollects. “Even in elementary school.” Like many children of Italian parents, he grew up with wine all around. “We never had just one bottle of wine on the table at dinner,” he says.

Marc Mondavi was educated and trained in the art not only at the family table, but also through the famous wine program at UC Davis. “I was there at just the right time.  I had all the most famous professors.” (Later, when Marc’s daughters attended UC Davis, they had to use assumed names because everybody but everybody knew who the Mondavis were.)

Marc Mondavi’s team produces several brands, including CK Mondavi, a value-priced lineup.  He was kind enough to pour a few of them for me at dinner a few weeks ago, and I asked him a question that I pose to every winemaker I interview:  what’s the most important thing in the winemaking process?

“Terroir,” he says.  That’s the French word for the soil in the vineyard, but like most French words, it means a lot more than that. “Terroir creates the end result,” Marc believes. “It’s the dirt that impacts the fruit the most.” Following that philosophy, Mondavi’s winemaking techniques are “true to the earth,” and he’s most proud of the fact that everything the winery uses, from the bottles to the labels to…everything…is “Made in the USA Certified.”  His family’s commitment also extends to support of veteran’s organizations such as the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

During dinner, we sampled the CK Mondavi Chardonnay and Merlot.  There are nine wines in the CK Mondavi portfolio, ranging from a lighter Pinot Grigio to a rich red blend they call Scarlet Five, which includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the other traditional Bordeaux varietals.

So…here is an evaluation (and a bit of appreciation) for the flavor and value the winery is able to pack into this particular brand.

CK Mondavi Chardonnay California 2016 ($6.99) – A great value, it’s medium-bodied, giving off citrus aromas and flavors, with a hint of apple and oak.  It’s 95% Chardonnay with 2% of a grape called Symphony, which was a new one on me.  According to Marc, it’s a hybrid created at UC Davis, and adds flowery notes to the blend.  WW 88

CK Mondavi Merlot California 2014 ($6.99) – It says Merlot on the label, because the bottle contains over 75% of that grape, but there are also small amounts of several other varietals that add dark fruit flavors and body.  A great everyday sipper.  WW 88

Winemaking is a Family Business

We might not be that familiar with family dynasties in other countries, but in France, the Guigals should certainly come to mind. In a recent interview, Phillipe Guigal told me a bit about his family’s (fairly recent) history. But since they have their name on a hilltop in the Northern Rhône, and since they produce wines at prices that run from great values to you gotta be kidding me, the wines, and the people who make them, deserve our attention.

Phillipe (L) and Marcel Guigal

“We are a relatively young company,” says Phillipe. The story begins with his grandfather, Etienne Guigal, who founded the firm in 1945. Later, he handed the company over to his son Marcel, Phillipe’s father, who celebrated his 55th vintage last year.

In the Northern Rhône, the major traditional red grape is Syrah, and pretty much only Syrah, from vineyards in Côte-Rôtie, Saint Joseph, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage.  The Guigals make whites from the heritage Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne grapes.  Phillipe is adamant that the family makes wine only in this region. “We feel that we could not control the quality in the way that we want if we tried to make wine in another region in France, let alone another country.”

At the age of 22, Phillipe took over as winemaker for the family business.  That was almost 20 years ago, and he carries on what he calls his grandfather’s “simple vision”: to make the highest quality wines possible, farming organically and without pesticides.  And even though many of the Guigal single vineyard offerings, like La Turque, La Mouline, and La Landonne (known in the wine world as “The La-Las”) will hit you for over $300 a bottle, many others, like those reviewed below, are available at extremely attractive prices.

“We are the birthplace of two of the great red grapes in the world: Syrah and Grenache,” states Phillipe. “These have been brought to other parts of France and the world, and we love many versions and interpretations, but truly the Rhône Valley is the home of these grapes.” While Bordeaux has Cabernet and Merlot, and Burgundy has Pinot Noir, the Rhône Valley has its own unique traditional varietals that age beautifully, but can be enjoyed at a young age as well.

Unlike many producers, the Guigals tend to hold their wines for quite a while before releasing them. Says Phillipe, “When you have great material, time is the key for the elements to come together, and for complexity to develop. Our wines are drinking at an optimum level when they are released. That is one of the major reasons consumers come back to our wines again and again.”

I’ll come back to these wines as long as you’ll let me….

E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2014 –The Northern Rhône is most famous for its Syrah-based reds, and whites represent a mere 2% of all production.  But the whites from this area have their own special attraction. This example is 65% Viognier, with touches of other traditional (though somewhat obscure) white varietals like Clairette and Bourboulenc. There are tropical notes of kiwi, honeysuckle, and white pear, balanced by pronounced minerality. WW 90  A steal at around $10.

E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2014 – Based on Grenache and Cinsault, this wine is very fruit forward for an Old World style, with flavors of light red fruits, like strawberry and raspberry.  Extremely refreshing, so stock up for summer.  WW 89  About $12.

E. Guigal Côte Rôtie Brune et Blonde – This wine comes from the heart of the Northern Rhone, however space does not permit me to tell the whole story of why the area has such a strange name. If you’re interested, write and ask me. This is a full-bore Syrah, enhanced with just a touch (4%) of Viognier. A very well-balanced wine with bold black fruit, a hint of characteristic black pepper, along with smoke, vanilla, and caramel notes that come from the 36 months the wine spent in oak. A favorite.  WW 94  $50

Is Mike Grgich the King of Chardonnay?

His name is Miljenko Grgich…

Mike Grgich

but everybody calls him Mike, for apparent reasons.  And, since this year is the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Judgment of Paris,” it’s time you get to know him…and his wines.

If you’ve seen the movie Bottle Shock, you know that the famous blind tasting held in Paris in 1976 consisted of a lineup of American and French wines sampled by a panel of France’s most distinguished connoisseurs and critics.  In the red category, six of the top ten winners were American, including Stag’s Leap, Clos du Val, and Ridge Montebello. In fact, several of the judges ranked two of the American wines in first and second place against the finest Bordeauxes.

In the white wine judging, three of the top four wines were American, including the #1 Chardonnay, Chateau Montelena. Though the movie does not disclose this, Mike Grgich, working at Montelena at the time, made that wine. The event put American wines squarely on the world stage, and Mike was a big part of it, even though he says he had no idea a blind tasting was happening in Paris.

“I was winemaker and limited partner at Montelena,” he recalls, “but was not told by Mr. Barrett about the event.” He continues that in the previous year the estate’s 1972 Chardonnay “won over three best French Chardonnays at a tasting in San Diego.”

“I knew it was something important when a reporter from The New York Times called to say they were sending a photographer to take my picture!  Imagine! A little immigrant named Mike Grgich was to be in a famous New York newspaper. I started dancing around the winery and singing in Croatian that I was born again! It was a miracle!”

Mike also remembers that the prize-winning Chardonnay sold, at the time, for $6.50 a bottle. Today, there’s one bottle on display in the Smithsonian Museum to commemorate the event.

The results of the Paris tasting changed his life. “As soon as the story was released, I started getting offers to become a winemaker,” he told me. “But I had always wanted to own my own winery.  I had a five-year agreement that ended in 1977 and I told Mr. Barrett that I would be leaving at the end of the contract. I earned one percent ownership for each year I was winemaker at Chateau Montelena and I took the money from that to purchase land in Rutherford.”

The rest, as they say, is wine world history. Today, Grgich Hills Estate produces a wide assortment of wines from classic varietals, at several different (and attractive) price points.

“I have always thought acid is important in white wines, says Grgich. Our wines are dry, crisp, balanced, food friendly, aromatic, not too oaky.” He wants his wines to “give a lingering enjoyment.”

They do.

Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay Napa Valley 2013 – According to Mike, 2013 was a “nearly perfect” vintage for Chardonnay. This sample, from vineyards in the southern tip of Napa Valley, gives off peach aromas and that characteristic “tutti-frutti” Chardonnay nose. On the palate, there are hints of mango and a mix of tropical fruits. WW 92 About $40

Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 –The law says that if you want to call your wine by a varietal name (like “Cabernet Sauvignon) there must be at least 75% of that grape in the bottle. The rest can be…whatever.  In this case, “the rest” is a yummy blend of Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.  As you’d expect from this particular combination, there are bold, full-bodied flavors of currant, mocha, and licorice, with spicy hints of cinnamon. WW91-92 points.  About $70

Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley 2012 – It’s a bit rare to grow Zinfandel in Napa, but Mike does…in a 34-acre vineyard above Calistoga. He co-ferments his Zinfandel with about 2% Petite Sirah to add complexity and structure. This wine is very true to type, with big blackberry flavors, black cherry, and perhaps a peppery note way in the back. Of course, you’d drink this wine at your July 4th cookout, with grilled meats, chicken, and lots of barbecue sauce. WW 91. About $35.

Dave Phinney — The Mad Blender of Napa Valley

As I may have mentioned before, one of the things I like best about the world of wine is that you can divide it in half in a number of ways. Old World and New World.  Reds and Whites.  Still and Sparkling. One other way to split things up is by wines that are 100% somethingorother, and wines that are blended. If you’re a blended wine fan, then Orin Swift is the winery for you.

But first, a caution.  A lot of wines are blended, even though that fact is not disclosed on the label.  For example, if you buy a bottle that says “Cabernet Sauvignon” in nice big letters, the law (at least in the US) specifies that 85% of the grapes used must be the named varietal. The other 15% can be Merlot, some white wine, chocolate milk, whatever. They don’t have to tell you. Staying with this example, Merlot is customarily blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to make it a bit softer and more approachable when it’s young. But you might never know it by reading the label.

Similarly, it’s common for Australian winemakers to put about 5% Viognier (a white wine) into their Shiraz, for a variety of reasons. But that’s not the kind of blending we’re talking about here.

Many regions of the world use traditional blends of several grapes.  Bordeaux, for example, is generally a mixture of four to five different red wines.  In Châteauneuf du Pape in the Southern Rhone, law and tradition allow as many as thirteen grapes in the blend, though hardly anyone uses all of them.  But that’s not the subject of this article, either.

Champagne, also, is generally a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meuniere, so this whole blending thing is nothing new.

But here, we’re talking about living dangerously…blending together varietals that are not only nontraditional, but downright off the wall. Like putting some chairs from Ikea around a Louis XIV table and somehow making it work. That’s what Dave Phinney does at Orin Swift.

I discovered these wines about 20 years ago when I tried a bottle of The Prisoner (blended wines have to have proprietary names if they don’t contain 75% of whatever grape). It was a blend of about half Zinfandel all mixed up with bizarre varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono (of all things). It was incredible, and became a big hit.  Dave got inspired, and now makes wine in France, Italy, Spain, and Argentina.  He’s having too much fun.

His philosophy seems to be, let’s take grapes that nobody has blended before, mix ’em together and see what we get. He gets some great results, and they’re well worth trying.

Dave’s style is to make bold, smack-you-in-the-face wines, and that’s okay with me.

Mannequin Chardonnay California 2013—He can call it Chardonnay because it contains a drop over the bare minimum, but the other 24% of the wines in this heavy bottle are Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Muscat. Some of these are traditional white varietals that originated in the Northern Rhône, and Phinney seems to favor them in his other blends as well. There are tropical flavors of ripe pineapple, vanilla bean (from the 40% French oak he uses), honey, and lemon. As I noted, Orin Swift also makes wines from Old World countries, but in a definite New World style.

F-2 French Wine NV –This blend of Grenache, Syrah, and “assorted Bordeaux varietals” would probably be considered heresy in France. Grenache and Syrah are traditional grapes of the Rhône valley, and it’s hard to imagine any French winemaker blending them into Cabernet, Merlot, etc.  But Phinney does. The result: A wine that’s deeply purple in the glass with aromas of blackberry, cassis, and lavender. The palate offers strawberry, plum, and other dark fruits. WW 92, about $15.

Sample widely…and write me with questions and comments. Cheers.

Tor Kenward — Winemaker in the Candy Factory

Tor Kenward. The Winemaker in the Candy Factory.


Jerry Greenfield
The Wine Whisperer

Normally, you don’t just drop everything, run up to Napa Valley, and start making wine. And if you do, you don’t always meet with success. But when the impulse, the urge, whatever you want to call it, does hit, the power can be undeniable. That’s what happened to Tor Kenward, and that’s what compelled him to make top-quality wines.

In his early 20s (he won’t say how many years ago that was) he was a partner in a Southern California jazz club. “I fell in with a cork dork who managed two wine shops,” he recalls.  When things got social, Tor would cook dinner, his friend would invite fellow wine lovers and “it was epiphany after epiphany.” Kenward remembers that his friends brought incredible wines to their dinners, and encouraged him to come along to Napa and Sonoma on buying trips for the stores. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I started going up to Napa in the mid-70s,” he says, and moved there permanently in 1977 when he was offered a job at Beringer. “Talk about the best job in the world,” he smiles. “I stayed there 27 years as Vice President of many of their most exciting programs. Kid in a candy factory.”

Spend almost three decades at a winery of Beringer’s caliber, and you soak up the deepest winemaking concepts and aspirations. Helping to shape Beringer’s Reserve wine and culinary programs doesn’t hurt, either.

“Working to make the best possible wine from raw ingredients has always been a love of mine, so all these decades as a vintner have never really seemed like work.” He aimed high from the beginning, deciding that the mass market bargain wines were not what he wanted to make.  He retired from Beringer and, like others before him, decided to “do his own thing.”

“When I launched TOR Kenward Family wines, there was never a second thought; all the wines were going to be Reserve quality and focused on single vineyard expression.” The oldest joke in the wine world is about how you make a small fortune in the wine business by starting with a large one. Fortunately, Kenward left Beringer with the resources to realize his “reserve quality” ambition.

“Thankfully, the critics blessed our first wines, and many customers have become long term supporters,” he reflects. His talents, and his good reviews, gave him the ability to secure fruit from the best Cabernet and Chardonnay blocks of land in the world. The name Beckstoffer comes immediately to mind, and fruit from those ethereal vineyards makes up two of his top offerings: the TOR To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet, and the To Kalon Vineyard Red.  He also makes distinguished single-vineyard wines from the Tierra Roja and Cimarossa Vineyards, among others.

He feels strongly about his best wines from Napa and Sonoma. “Our Chardonnays are $60.  The Cabernet Sauvignons begin at $80 and go to $150. If we don’t like something along the way we don’t bottle it. Our customers get only the best, and I treat them exactly how I would like to be treated if I were on my own mailing list.”

Speaking of mailing lists, most of the Kenward wines go to customers lucky enough to obtain a spot. However, he does set aside enough of his production to get into important wine markets, so more enthusiasts can discover them. “Naples is one of the great fine wine friendly destinations,” he says. “We hope with time to get more wine there.”

Of course, anyone who produces wine in the “reserve” range has to be sensitive to what wine critics think—and what they write in the major magazines, newsletters, and websites.  Kenward’s wines have scored consistently in the mid-to-upper 90s range, and some even 95 points and above. He believes that some of his wines could achieve 100 points.

“I think wine ratings can create excitement, and help small wineries such as ours move forward when they don’t have sales, marketing, or PR consultants or employees.” He does believe that the top critics try very hard to be fair and true to their palates, but the real question for the consumer is “which critics like the types of wines I like.” His best advice:  find a retail outlet with people who will listen to you intently and introduce you to new and exciting wines that may not get reviewed. “You are your own best wine critic,” he maintains.

The philosophy in Kenward’s winery is simple:  Study the little things about each vintage.  Learn how to let the personality of each vineyard take center stage. Maximize the potential of the land in every bottle. And most of all, know when to take your hands off, step back from the process, and let nature – and the fruit and the land – do the talking.

Tor wines are available on the winery’s website www.torwines.com.

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